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Shelter to open temporary home for families

(ran East, West, Beach editions)

By the end of this week, three families seeking refuge in the YWCA Virginia Lazarra Emergency Shelter might find help. Last week, they would have been turned away.

Thanks to the foresight of the city, donations by area businesses and many hours of volunteer labor, the shelter has rehabilitated a vacant home across the street from its headquarters at 429 Sixth Ave. S. The home passed city inspections last week. Shelter volunteers are furnishing the home and hope it will be ready by the end of this week. The home will be used by three families that have been in the YWCA program long enough to find jobs, but need extra time to save money. That will free up space in the shelter's main house for three new clients.

While helping three families may not sound like much of an improvement for a shelter that turned away 673 people last year because of lack of space, the director of housing and support services for the YWCA of Tampa Bay said it will have an impact.

"When you figure we are the largest family shelter in south Pinellas County and we now house eight to 12 families at a time and we now will be able to help 11 to 15, it really is a substantial increase," Steve Wolf said. "If we only have that building six months we will be able to help another 18 families."

Although those numbers tell the story, the impact the home will have is probably better measured by a family it will help.

Talmadge Robinson thanks a telephone operator who heard the tears in his voice for helping him locate the Virginia Lazarra Emergency Shelter on June 23.

Robinson, 35, was desperate to find a place to stay for his wife, Liza, his 2-year-old daughter, Liza, and himself. A new landlord had raised the rent on the family's Clearwater duplex from $350 a month to $650 a month, he said. The electric, water and telephone bills were all due. Robinson lost his job making lumber trusses. His wife hadn't been working.

When he called the shelter, Robinson was told if he could be there in two hours, the family would have a place to stay until it could get back on their feet. Because of the demand for space, the shelter serves clients on a first-come, first-served basis, Wolf said.

"I am a praying man," Robinson said, "and I prayed and this came about."

Robinson found a job this week at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. His wife recently began working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Shelter staff will babysit young Liza while they work.

He credits the shelter staff with helping him maintain a positive attitude.

"They give you a positive attitude here to take back out there," he said. "When I came here I was down. They give you a lot of love."

Most of the families that find their way to the shelter aren't as fortunate as the Robinsons. Those families, Wolf said, are being held together by a woman who is her children's sole supporter.

That mother usually isn't getting child support or welfare and finds she is barely making ends meet on a minimum-wage job. She gets fired from her job, a child gets sick and she is unable to pay the bills, and she finds herself without a safe place to live.

When she finds a job while staying at the shelter, it will usually be another precarious minimum-wage job.

"Emergency shelter is a Band-Aid solution," Wolf said.

The Lazarra shelter offers housing for 30 days until family leaders can secure a job and save the money needed for rent and utilities. The program also helps the parents set goals and make budgets so they can live within their means. For most, that translates to living in dingy apartments in high-crime neighborhoods, Wolf said.

"Often that is part of the reason why they ended up here," he said. "They were living in a neighborhood they really couldn't afford."

While he wasn't out on interviews for jobs, Robinson helped to get the new house ready. The Robinsons probably will be one of the families invited to move into the home, Wolf said. Because he is being helped so much by the shelter, helping out feels good, Robinson said.

To get the house ready, several area businesses also donated time and materials, including Frank F. Lowry Electric Inc., Inman Plumbing and Warehouse Carpets.

The house, at 432 Sixth Ave. S., is one of the few remaining houses in an old neighborhood designated for demolition for the expansion of the University of South Florida. The city owns the land and offered it to the shelter for rent of $1 a year with the understanding the university probably will be ready to use the land in about six months, Wolf said.

Although the home is a temporary solution, the shelter looks forward to a $1.8-million joint venture with the University of South Florida. The YWCA of Tampa Bay is building a three-story complex that will offer a child-care facility for USF students and shelter clients, and both the emergency and transitional housing offered at the YWCA Nova Civitan House.

With the opening of that facility, the YWCA will be able to help families break the cycle of poverty, Wolf said, with the expansion of the transitional housing program. In the new facility, there will be a floor of apartments for families who are trying to better their income through additional education. The new complex, called YWCA Family Village at USF, is expected to open within a year, Wolf said.

"That is something I feel very excited about," Wolf said.